light into ashes
Apr 20, 2010 12:47pm
Velvet Underground (long post)
The Dead had played with the Velvets before - at the 2/7/69 Pittsburg show, it was the Fugs, the Velvets, and the Dead. Now THAT was a show!
I see the Velvets as being the flip side of the Dead - despite a totally different style & sensibility, the musical approach is much closer than is obvious at first. The Velvets were the only rock band I know of to do half-hour freeform improvisations in 1966. (There may have been others though, someone can probably think of a couple.) And while the Dead had Lesh to give them that avant-garde dissonant edge (especially apparent on Anthem), the early Velvets had John Cale who brought a quite different avant-garde slant from his previous noise/drone experiments. Both bands were innovators in using feedback as a meaningful musical statement... (of course they weren't alone, the Who & Hendrix among others were doing the same). The Velvets were consistent in using songs as jumping-off places for long jams, although in this they were very 'of their time' as many bands started doing that in the late '60s.
And of course, both bands called themselves the Warlocks in their early days... Though the Velvets were quite marginal in their own time, I think they were far more influential on later music than the Dead.
At the risk of being repetitive, I'll copy a mostly VU-related exchange I had on another forum -
Ornette Coleman & Cecil Taylor were influences on the VU as well. But I hear more Indian music and more "minimalism" in the VU, whereas I hear more "jazz" in the Dead. I know Lesh has said that Indian music was big for them, but Indian music was big in the mid 60's counterculture and for most musicians in San Francisco at that time too -- it was just something in the air, since Indian music was starting to become more accessible via American record labels, Ravi Shankar making his appearance at Monterey Pop, etc. I think what the Dead took from Indian was the idea of going off forever using one chord as a basis and building in intensity as the "jam" progressed (Coltrane likely took the same thing from Indian music as well; Miles' Kind of Blue uses the same idea of not having any real chord changes, but doesn't really build in intensity as it goes). But Indian music also has a big DRONE component to it: there's always one instrument (usually the tamboura) that's playing a single note that drones throughout the improvisation, which is the superficially "druggy" aspect of Indian music that American pop culture picked up on. The VU totally played that up, whereas the Dead never really did. Didn't John Cale study with La Monte Young as well? That's another key component of the VU sound that distinguishes them from the Dead.
Indian music was quite popular back then - didn't George Harrison have a lot to do with making it more 'mainstream'? (Not just by his own sitar-playing & Indian tunes, but he influenced Lennon as well - if you check out Lennon's songs on Revolver like She Said, Dr Robert, & especially Tomorrow Never Knows, there's some serious drone action going on - the sound that quickly became associated with "druggy" music.)
Yes, John Cale studied with LaMonte Young - actually there's a recording from the Dream Syndicate (with Young & Tony Conrad) which is just ONE NOTE (on two or three violas) sustained for about a half-hour. Now that's a drone! Cale's also released a 3-CD set of some of the noise/minimalist experiments he was doing in the '60s outside the Velvets.
One highly recommended Velvets show is from October '66, a complete 2-hour show (in poor sound, as usual) where they play no less than TWO half-hour improvs (called "The Nothing Song" and "Melody Laughter"), which don't sound quite like anything else. Nico moans over the music, kind of like Donna...
Then by '68, with Sister Ray they had a piece that could be transformed into something different each time they played it. There's one famous show from April '68 where just the INTRO to Sister Ray is a 40-minute quiet trance drone!
One thing I noticed about the Dead's music is that they did not like repetition too much in the jams, the music is always restless. Garcia especially will find some beautiful phrase, repeat it a couple times....and then drop it to do something else, never to be heard again. So we almost never get 'trance Dead'....one example of that, say, would be the end of a long Franklin's where they stay in the quiet part for a long time.
I wish the Dead had done drones more, but oh well, can't have everything.
I was just listening to the 11-19-66 Dancin' in the Streets (sadly, cuts out in the middle), and Jerry gets into this drone bag in his solo, he'll go BOONNNGGG on the low E and then plays his high notes over that. Wonderful effect. (Sometimes Clapton did the same in his Cream solos - for instance Spoonful at the 9-3-67 show.)
LiA, my guess is that Indian music was something Jerry and Phil would have stumbled across before George Harrison brought it to a more pop audience. I think Ravi Shankar was starting to have albums released and marketed to an American audience prior to the Beatles' endorsement of all things Indian. Here's a good example of something that folks in Jerry and Phil's circle must have been digging: http://singersaintsrecords.blogspot.com/2009/03/ravi-shankarali-akbar-khan-ragas.html
I suspect that our picture of what the audience heard at a Dead show circa 67-68 isn't all that accurate because we're hearing, for the most part, relatively clear sbd recordings of music that was coming out of fairly ragged PA systems. My guess is that the Dead's 67-68 music, when heard LOUD and pumped through a barely adequate PA system that was being pushed to its limits, sounded a lot more distorted and drone-y then it sounds to us on tape cleaned up with 21st century technology. Consider something like that insane stage-mic'ed 5/18/68 tape with Alligator>Caution. Crank that up as loud as you can and blast it across a field full of tripping heads, and I'm guessing that most of the nuances of the band's interaction would blend and melt together into one giant buzzing wall of sound. Not that that's a bad thing at all.
Phil seemed to dig the drones, though -- there are certainly a few Dark Stars when he's buzzing and rumbling away like a madman. Like, say, oh, 12/6/73!
It was late '65 when the Beatles started expressing an interest in Indian music - quite possibly the Dead were digging Indian music independently - it was a time when lots of things happened simultaneously, very fast. ('65 to '68 or so was probably the most rapid upheaval in rock music we've had....) At any rate, the influence didn't enter their music for some time.
It's funny to think of lots of musicians round the country listening to Ravi and thinking, "Man, nobody knows about this...."
There aren't a whole lot of early Dead AUDs, but when you put something like "1-27-67" or 9-15-67 on (or from '68, 5-18 and 6-14), you get an idea what they sounded like....VERY NOISY. A huge swirl of sounds - the big Viola Lees and Cautions are pure sonic assault. And Pigpen's organ is way louder than you'd expect from the SBDs, it cuts over everything.
If you want to directly compare the difference between clean SBD & noisy AUD, try this - on the "1-27-67" AUD, the Morning Dew and New Potato are the same versions as on the 10-22-67 SBD.
And finally - here's part of an interview with the crabby Lou Reed & Doug Yule in 1970:
LOU: We had vast objections to the whole San Francisco scene. It's just tedious, a lie, and untalented. They can't play and they certainly can't write. The Airplane, the Dead, all of them...
DOUG: They lose track of where the music comes from - they start thinking it instead of playing it. Especially the Dead. Now I saw the Dead when they just started, and they were a bunch of scuzzy kids jsut having a ball playing rock & roll - they were a lot of fun. But then they started thinking about what they were doing too much.
LOU: I can get off understanding the kick it was to play Lovelight.... But they're amateur...they can't play. Jerry's not a good guitar player. It's a joke, and the Airplane is even worse, if that's possible.
DOUG: Jerry, he'll play the same solo for a half hour, but if he'd done it for just two minutes....he plays the same notes over and over again.
LOU: You listen to the Beatles, or you listen to 'Gimme Shelter' by the Stones, and Keith isn't playing many notes, but the notes he's playing are so thought out, so perfect...
Q: But don't you think a lot of people get off on something like the Dead because it's so loose?
LOU: It's what people are settling for....they're getting third-hand blues. It's a fad.... People like Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, all those people are the most untalented bores that have ever lived. Just look at them - can you take Grace Slick seriously? It's a joke. And the whole thing is, the kids are being hyped this on FM radio. Well, now finally it's dead, the whole San Francisco thing is dead.
[Goes on to say he did like the first Moby Grape album & Buffalo Springfield. Hates FM radio, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, and early Velvet drone-songs with John Cale. Praises Mick Jagger's lyrics. Mourns the breakup of the Beatles. "I don't think people realize how sad it is that the Beatles broke up. That means there's not going to be any more Beatles music.... We were hearing this bootleg tape of the original Get Back album before Spector, and it's really fabulous."]